Friday, August 12, 2011

Income/Wealth Inequality and Social Stability

The Princeton political scientist Carles Boix argued at at length that one of the things that makes democracy possible is that the better off perceive their privilege to be protected (in some measure) against egalitarian impulses of the less-well-off. In modern industrial democracies like the US, the wealthy enjoy constitutional protections and can also move their wealth elsewhere.

Fine. But two obvious questions arise.

1. Is there a point where inequality provokes a backlash among the less-well-off? The answer in the US for decades has been no. Americans are remarkably, stunningly indifferent to the gross inequalities of the US, hands down the most unequal of all the industrial democracies. The US has one of the lowest social mobility rates in the world, even compared to non-democracies and less-developed nations. It has fares most poorly among its peers on health, longevity, education, happiness — very nearly every index of comparison. (The only country that does roughly as badly is Britain. What a surprise — the nation that has done most to parrot the American example.)

Despite this, as John Kenneth Galbraith long noted (among many others), Americans didn't seem to care.... American exceptionalism. Speaking on The Charlie Rose Show, economist Kenneth Rogoff's comment echoes something I've heard elsewhere: Americans "expect to win the lottery." Americans are generally happy to see others enjoy billions because a remarkable percentage of Americans are deluded into thinking they too will win any day now — this despite the US having a dismal degree of social mobility.

Will this change? Can it change? Can Americans develop a measure of anger? Can they rally the way the French or Greeks have? The way anybody but Americans do?

This brings us to the second question:

2. How are the US government and oligarchs suppressing American egalitarian impulses or protecting themselves against the same? I suggest that the national security apparatus/state that has been developing for years and has accelerated under Obama will be used to contain any American social upheaval — should any develop, which seems unlikely given the level of Americans' apathy and ignorance. Under Obama, domestic spying has grown. Obama has viciously sought to suppress whistleblowers, as Glenn Greenwald has described repeatedly. Moreover, we have an educational system which borders on systematic indoctrination. From grade school through university (especially university) we have a host of institutions that endlessly trumpet the unalloyed glories of both unlimited greed and the infallibility of the American way of doing things. I am frequently astonished by the extent to which extraordinarily well-educated, intelligent people show absolutely no inclination or ability to challenge American orthodoxy.

The writings of H. L. Mencken, John Kenneth Galbraith, Noam Chomsky, Mark Twain, and many others go into this over the length of American history. Today, we have many new voices — Naomi Klein, Glenn Greenwald among them. Yet Americans remain impervious to even the most obvious truths.

The wealthiest and their willing slaves like Obama and Congress (those members who are not among the 1% already, that is) have obvious incentives for pressing the dogma. But why so many Americans prove so indifferent is a mystery.

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